Community Coordinator for the University Lutheran Church
Every winter, Jayms Battaglia oversees a new group of about 24 to 28 students who join the staff of the Harvard Square Homeless shelter. The shelter, which opened in 1983, was the first student-run shelter in the country.
Many of the students who work there will go on to work in the social field with schools or the homeless population, Battaglia says. Her role is to mentor them, make sure they’re running the shelter effectively, and ensure that they understand the rules and regulations of running a shelter.
“I also work with them to do reflecting about what it’s like for them to be in the role that they’re in, what they experience on a nightly basis, some of the harsh realities that they experience in the homeless community,” Battaglia says. “Everything from addiction to mental illness, to just hearing about how folks are sometimes working two and three jobs and they’re still not able to keep up in this economy.”
She says that some of the students struggle with the notion that the shelter is only providing a Band-Aid to a much larger problem.
“That’s a big struggle for a lot of the students at times—is what we’re doing making a difference and can we be doing more, and how can we do more as students?” Battaglia says. “That’s where encouraging them to become advocates within the community comes out, attending rallies, attending those conversations [and] those roundtables, being part of the larger conversation, advocating within Cambridge for [a] fair housing market, and helping them recognize that being an activist is sometimes part of the work.”
Some of the students who’ve worked with Battaglia have gone on to start shelters of their own, including Sam Greenberg and Sarah Rosenkrantz, who founded the Y2Y youth shelter in Harvard Square in 2016, which is designed to meet the needs of youth between the ages of 18 and 24, according to its website.
Battaglia, who served on the board of Y2Y and helped mentor them through the process of starting their own shelter, says people within the youth homeless population felt traditional shelters were dangerous and that they needed a place of their own.
“We were hearing that feedback from these young people, that they didn’t feel safe in a lot of the shelters, [that] they felt like they were bypassed, they felt like there were times when they felt very unsafe physically and emotionally and mentally,” Battaglia says.
Greenberg, who volunteered at the shelter in high school and was later a member of the staff while attending Harvard, says that Battaglia has provided a stable, thoughtful presence, and is “somebody that we’ve always felt we could rely on and look up to.”
He says that Battaglia played an “incredible role” in making Y2Y a reality, from attending meetings to providing advice. She has even stewarded fundraisers for Y2Y that have raised a total of around $30,000, and found a marketing professional who designed the shelter’s logo.
“She sort of, again and again, just leveraged connections to do different things,” Greenberg says.
Prior to working with the church, Battaglia volunteered with the Boston Alliance of LGBTQ Youth (BAGLY) and worked with the Girl Scouts of Boston, where she developed and implemented LGBTQ training for adult volunteers, and a mentoring program that paired LGBTQ girls with LGBTQ adult women in the community.
“I wanted to take home every young person who I came across who was kicked out of their home because they identified as [LGBTQ],” Battaglia says. “I had to learn that I had restrictions on how much I could help. That was hard to learn.”
On the flip side, Battaglia says that being able to witness those moments when a young person is incredibly happy and feels secure with being themselves “is a gift given to us as adults.”
One of the reasons Battaglia says she enjoys working with young people so much is that they aren’t afraid to try new things.
“I enjoy working with young people even more so because they have fresh eyes on the work, they have innovative ideas, they are taking risks and trying new approaches within the old system,” Battaglia says. “That is what gets me out of bed to do the work each day, with the hope that throughout the work I am able to help one person along in their life.”
This story originally appeared in the Do Gooders, Key Players, and Game Changers issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.